Appraisal & Evaluation
Before any work can begin, a thorough appraisal of the level of damage that the photograph had sustained across time is essential. This damage could be anything from a cracked glass plate to mould and mildew. In this iconic portrait of Abraham Lincoln we can see some dust and scratches, that are far more substantial at 100% detail, which will need to be cleaned up.
Restoration & Reconstruction
Once the extent of the damage is known, an intensive digital clean and restoration begins. In some cases, whole areas of the photograph may need compositing and reconstructing, so that the foundational black-and-white information underneath the later colour is as close as possible to its original state when it was taken. Contrast adjustments are also made at this stage to even out any anomalies from the original process.
Blocking-in the colour is a simultaneously meditative and overwhelming process, in which layers of colour are digitally ‘painted’ onto the restored photograph. How many layers? In some instances, thousands. The garish colour scheme is intentional, allowing every detail to be picked up, so we can differentiate Lincoln’s jacket buttons from his waistcoat buttons and everything in between. Each area will contain several (sometimes dozens of) individual layers to simulate colour gradation in light and shadow.
Attention to detail matters. Running concurrently with the restoration process, the historical research can take a great deal of time to get right. In more complex images, hundreds of references need to be obtained in order to produce the most authentic result possible.
The real magic of a colorized photograph appears when the garish areas of blocked in colour meet the historical research. Each area, like the Brooks Brothers’ suit, the table, or Lincoln’s pocket watch, is sourced directly from the reference material and then adjusted to the lighting conditions.
Bringing it All Together
Even after the entire photograph is colorized there is more work to be done. Additional contrast changes for certain areas balance the entire shot, in addition to colour filters and other tweaks, adding that final polish to the entire composition. The result is an authentic representation of Lincoln as Gardner may have seen him, fidgeting with his spectacles, pencil in hand.